Last night we heard that Jules Bass (b. 1935) of Rankin-Bass fame has passed away at age 87. Having already done a post on the Rankin-Bass Christmas/Holiday specials, our natural thought today was to treat of a Rankin-Bass production germane to THIS season, one we are overdue to pay attention to, and that’s their stop-motion animation Halloween feature Mad Monster Party? (1967).
This delightful and strange obscurity has been enjoying a kind of second life in recent years. Released slightly before my time, it was a full length theatrical film, not a tv special like their annual holiday shows, so I never learned about it until a few years ago. It is a kind of confluence of everything great. It’s very much in the classic horror/comedy spirit that informed such things as The Addams Family, The Munsters and the song “The Monster Mash”. Writer Harvey Kurtzman and visual designer Jack Davis were both from the Mad Magazine stable, giving nice double meaning to “Mad” in the title. Boris Karloff, fresh from How the Grinch Stole Christmas plays Baron Boris Von Frankenstein, his final role associated with his iconic horror franchise. The plot concerns the Baron’s summoning of all the classic monsters to his Island of Evil to a grand convention where he is to announce his retirement and the handing over of his “organization” to his nebbishy nephew Felix, who naturally is all wrong for the job.
The idea that Dr. Frankenstein would have an “organization” seems inspired by the James Bond films. Count Dracula, the Mummy, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the Werewolf, The Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. They’re all voiced by the hilarious Allen Swift, who draws from his repertoire of old Hollywood actors. I bet he was bummed he couldn’t do Karloff! But he performed Felix as Jimmy Stewart, and did other characters as Peter Lorre, Charles Laughton, Sydney Greenstreet, et al. The immortal Phyllis Diller plays the long-suffering Bride of Frankenstein, and actress/singer Gale Garnett (best known for her #4 1964 hit “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine”) plays Frankenstein’s foxy assistant Francesca.
The presence of this sexy puppet character presages Jessica (young Mrs, Claus) in Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Francesca becomes the love interest for Felix. This, coupled with the fact that they are trapped on an island, evokes Island of Lost Souls, The Most Dangerous Game, and White Zombie. (Not to mention The Island of Misfit Toys). Also there are zombies, and an appearance by King Kong.
As compared with the Christmas specials, the plot seems desultory in Mad Monster Party? In the Kurtzman/Mad tradition, the point is all the campy jokes and references. There are also lots of delightful songs co-written by Bass and his frequent collaborator Maury Laws. Jazz singer Ethel Ennis sings the theme song. With a 95 minute running time (twice or three times the length of their TV shows) it does overstay its welcome a little, but it is the PERFECT thing to have on the background at a Halloween party where people can check in on it from time to time, the same you might play a Halloween mix-tape for festive atmospherics. That may sound a heresy to some, but this is a case where I’d support the social function of a movie. That’s what holidays are about.
Rankin-Bass did a second Halloween special for TV, Mad Mad Mad Monsters in 1972, with Swift again doing most of the voices, with Bob McFadden impersonating the late Karloff. McFadden’s later claim to fame was playing “Frankenberry” in cereal commercials.
Rankin-Bass closed up shop about 20 years ago. His professional partner Arthur Rankin Jr (from the great American dynasty) passed away in 2014.
Happy haunting, Jules Bass!
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